Saturday, October 22, 2011

Weekend Post - Science is critical

Please forgive the wordplay but science really IS “critical”. I believe it’s critical, in the sense that it’s vitally important, because it saves, prolongs and improves our lives. If it hadn’t been for science we’d still live to our 30s if we were lucky and most of us over the age of 40 would be in constant pain and probably wishing we were dead. We have the benefit of modern technology that allows us to communicate better than ever before, educate ourselves and entertain ourselves in a way that our grandparents could never have imagined. Actually, let me correct that. My grandmother CAN imagine it, she’s still alive and kicking at the age of 93, thanks to the benefits of science and medicine.

Science is also critical in another sense. It’s critical because it criticises. Not in a negative, whining sense, but in the best sense of the word. Criticism is about weighing the good and the bad aspects of something and science is best at that.

Unfortunately there are just too many areas of falsehood where science is needed to dispel lies and deceit.

Homeopathy is a good example. Despite there being absolutely no evidence whatsoever that it does anything, many people still swear by it. Can they all be wrong? Yes, they most certainly can. To begin with it’s simply not plausible. Homeopathic remedies are based on two simple ideas. Firstly there’s the idea that a dose of something that causes similar symptoms to a disease will cure that disease. This makes no sense whatsoever and is simply not true. Then there’s the second, even less plausible idea, that by repeatedly diluting the “remedy” the effect of the remedy actually becomes stronger.

The biggest problem homeopaths face is explaining quite how much they dilute the remedy. They typically begin by diluting the original remedy to one hundredth of it’s strength in water. Then that diluted amount will again be diluted to one hundredth so that only one ten thousandth of the original strength remains. Then again and again it will be diluted to one hundredth of each diluted strength, sometimes up to 60 times. Please don’t try to do the maths, your calculator can’t cope with numbers that big but others have worked out that many homeopathic remedies are so diluted that not a single atom of the original substance remains in the “remedy” you buy. Not one.

The homeopathic industry, when these facts became clear, suggested instead that somehow the water has a “memory” of the substance it originally contained. In 1997 a French researcher, Jean Benveniste actually published a paper in the respected science journal Nature, suggesting that water could indeed do this. That would have been fine if his research hadn’t later been shown to be fatally flawed, used biased researchers and having discarded the results that weren’t what they wanted to see. So we can forget that.

In fact, and this bit IS science, there are circumstances in which liquid water can retain certain structures and forms. Water molecules can form temporary bonds but these last no more than (take a deep breath) fifty femtoseconds which is fifty quadrillionths of a second. That’s a millionth of a billionth of a second. Even if there was any truth to this silliness no “memory” of a useless homeopathic remedy would last until the pills are in the store’s shelves.

Because of all this catastrophic implausibility homeopathy remedies don’t even need to be tested to say that they’re worthless but the scientific method isn’t as careless as that. Homeopathic “remedies” HAVE been tested many, many times and guess what? Not one of them works. Of course people THINK they work but what’s working is the placebo effect, the slight feeling of being better you get by doing something, perhaps anything.

The problem with homeopathic or any other so-called complimentary remedies isn’t that they do nothing. The problem is that they are often taken instead of medicines that DO actually do something. In the UK recently there was a major scandal because some homeopaths were recommending their silly products as preventing malaria to travellers to places like Botswana. Someone could have died. Who knows, perhaps someone did.

Science has two main roles. To give the world new ideas based on evidence and research but also to help us cast aside those ideas that don’t work any more, and probably never did. We’ve given up the belief that the Earth is the center of the universe and that your star sign predicts your future. It’s the same for homeopathy. It’s long past the time when that sort of superstition should be put aside and replaced with something that does actually work.


For a summary of homeopathy you should start with the Wikipedia entry here.

If you want a good summary of it's logical, scientific and common sense failings see the Skeptic's Dictionary entry here. There's also an excellent summary of the whole "memory of water" claptrap by Steven Novella here.

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